As Akiko Miki, one of the three curators of this year’s Yokohama Triennale, tries to wrap up a roundtable discussion titled “The Connecting World and the Isolating World” at the Yokohama Museum of Art, a question is shouted out from the back of the room.
“What about nature? Isn’t nature very important to Asia?” the person asks.
Ah yes, that old chestnut; the East is all about birds and flowers, spirituality and harmony, while the West is about cold logic, mind-body duality and modernity … unnatural, as it were.
Moderator Suhanya Raffel, executive director of Hong Kong’s M+ Museum and Triennale consultant, responds by saying that one of the values of art is that it helps us to better understand our relationship with nature, which is complicated.
This brief exchange, with provincial essentialism being gently challenged by cosmopolitan pluralism, is indicative of the kind of debate that the Triennale is caught up in.
The Japan Times had a chance to catch up with Miki a few days before the opening of the Yokohama Triennale to learn more about her thinking behind the event. For someone partly in charge of one of the biggest events on the country’s arts calendar, she is remarkably composed.
Is anybody freaking out?
Hmmm, not yet (laughs). It’s part of the experience. It’s not freaking out, it’s just part of the normal process! It’s an exciting moment; things don’t go as planned, everything is in process.
The theme for the Triennale is “Islands, Constellations & Galapagos.” How did this concept come into being and did you have any concerns about it?
The keywords behind it are connectivity and isolation. Looking at the world today, with Brexit and the possible breakdown of the European Union, we want people to think about that. Also in the context of biennales and triennales, we always try to think about contemporary issues, and we think these two issues connote the state of the world today.
Also, this is the third time that the Yokohama Museum of Art has been the main venue for the Triennale, and we wanted to think about Yokohama again and how it’s related to this international event. This city was a space for opening the country, as you know. Until then, Japan was in sakoku (a period of national isolation that lasted from 1633 to 1854) and Yokohama became a space for connection. There are sites all around the city that tell us about this history. For example, Kannai used to be a checkpoint on a boundary (that distinguished) between “inside” and “outside,” within which foreign people were permitted (to live).
Another significant position you’ve held is working with Benesse Art Site Naoshima, on a rather isolated island in the Seto Inland Sea. Did your experience there affect your thinking about Japan and its relationship with the outside world more generally? Is there a tension between preserving and developing an identity for you?
It’s not that we want to say that we’re isolated and therefore we must connect. We want people to understand the complexity of the world. When we talk about Galapagos, there’s a good side and a bad side, of course — miraculously, different species were preserved. However, from an economic point of view it’s not beneficial in terms of competitiveness to be isolated, and it means that there’s a vulnerability to outside pressures.
What are some of the ideas that have influenced you personally in developing this installment of the Yokohama Triennale?
The global strategist Parag Khanna’s book “Connectography” talks about supply chains and how the world is connected in new ways. Massimo Cacciari, the former mayor of Venice, has written about the archipelago. Also, “Insular Insight” (a book on Naoshima edited by Lars Muller and Miki herself), which is an anthology of essays and discussions about how islands and archipelagos could be an alternative to current forms of modernization and industrialization, and if these are the right direction.
Did you find that you agreed or disagreed with the propositions in these sources?
There are a lot of different issues and, of course, good and bad points. For example, Khanna is very positive about connectivity, saying that it’s the next (big) social asset in globalization, but I’m not so sure it’s really that important. I still have questions about that.
More than ever I think it’s necessary to be skeptical, in the best sense of the word, for us to be able to survive the next few years.
Considering the situation we’re in, with North Korea, the retrenchment of Brexit and U.S. President Donald Trump’s brand of populism, is your vision of the future bright or dark?
It’s gray (laughs).
After our chat I was able to visit the Triennale itself and, despite some misgivings about the bombastic and unconvincing “In a world…” type rhetoric that is used in exhibition-related text, the show itself was outstandingly moving, intelligent and beautiful. This was in part because it did not attempt to answer big questions with easy platitudes.
In comparison to the usual group exhibition experience, where you might find a few works that stand out, nearly every part of “Islands, Constellations & Galapagos” has an immediate and powerful impact, but also merits lengthy scrutiny.
The combination of different works is also extraordinarily well done. At the Yokohama Museum of Art site the visitor is first presented with a grand, in-your-face bamboo shimenawa-esque (the ceremonial braided rope used at Shinto shrines) piece by Indonesian artist Joko Avianto that is then followed by the intimate, saucy and satirical work of the Hong Kong-based art duo Map Office, which features the spoken word, text and intricate dioramas.
The viewer will then be slapped in the face with the exuberant manga-inspired work of artist “Mr.,” a protege of Takashi Murakami. Not into the sexualization of minors? Never mind, after that is an intellectually more challenging room of work by Carsten Holler, Tobias Rehberger, Anri Sala and Rirkrit Tiravanija, a riff on the surrealist “exquisite corpse” approach of collectively creating work that includes some archive pieces by Man Ray.
Part of the beauty of the show is that whether the works are to your taste or not, they all play well off each other. If there is a meta-message to the Triennale, it is not “only connect.” It is more an exploration of Darwin’s original meaning of “survival of the fittest,” that is to say, diversity and specialism are a fact of life and, incidentally, also part of the artistic process.
Yokohama Triennale 2017: “Islands, Constellations & Galapagos” runs through Nov. 5 at the Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse No. 1 and the basement of the Yokohama Port Opening Memorial Hall. It is closed Aug. 24, Sept. 14 and 28, and Oct. 12 and 26. It is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. with admission up to 30 minutes prior to closing time (open till 8:30 p.m. from Oct. 27-29 and Nov. 2-4). Admission costs ¥1,800. For more information, call Hello Dial at 03-5777-8600 (8 a.m. till 10 p.m.) or visit www.yokohamatriennale.jp.